Zainab Omaki on Carol Mitchell’s What Start Bad A Mornin’

Carol Mitchell’s What Start Bad A Morning—a diminutive for the Jamaican proverb ‘what start bad a morning, cyan end good a evenin’—is a moving exploration of trauma, immigration, race and familial ties across three countries and timelines. Spanning Jamaica, Trinidad, and America between the late seventies and early aughts—just post 9/11—the novel follows Amaya, a woman in her mid-forties who juggles her roles as carer for her ageing aunt, wife to a lawyer husband, and mother to a neurodiverse son, all while working as an office manager at the same firm as her husband and volunteering at a shelter.  Packed as her schedule is, it is inconvenient, therefore, when a woman shows up at her car window one day, claiming to be her sister. Thoroughly dubious, yet, triggered by her words, thus, begins Amaya’s journey to remember and understand the childhood she blocked out decades ago. 

The novel with its patient, vivid rendering of Jamaican-Trinidadian family (Amaya’s husband is Chinese Trinidadian, an interesting piece of Caribbean demography not much touched upon in popular literature) effectively paints a picture of the immigrant experience in the American landscape, especially post 9/11/. Amaya and her husband migrate here on a visa lottery making them luckier than most. Nevertheless, they still suffer hardships in the form of racial discrimination and culture shock. In their story—a  new family comprising of father, mother and child all crammed into an abode with distant relatives while struggling to make their qualifications count on American soil— the stories of so many other immigrants are clearly delineated. The psychological toll these hardships take on them as individuals and also as a unit are even more familiar.   

But the book doesn’t only anchor its interrogation of immigration injustices to the primary characters. It branches out to consider others from various nationalities and of less ideal legal statuses. This kaleidoscopic take on immigration woes provides an inclusive, thoughtful view of what it means to be a migrant and what it means to seek a better life in a country which prides itself theoretically on being a place where dreams are possible for everyone, but often doesn’t rise to the occasion. As the characters show in numerous ways, they are failed by their chosen home. 

Closely tied to this contemplation of immigrant experiences is the novel’s examination of the African American place in the U.S. Hailing from a predominantly black nation, for the first time, Amaya and her husband come to know themselves by the color of their skin, they come to realize all the challenges that come along with having their skin color. The contrast—going from blissful ignorance to dismayed recognition— is unsurprisingly jarring, but even more so heartbreaking. They have to fight on two levels: the migrant level in which people of this soil don’t want them here, and the racial level in which the mere look of them makes everything they struggle to attain that much harder. Coupled with a new baby of interracial descent and, later, an aunt with degenerative mental problems, the fraughtness of their lives here is always somewhat at the fore. Perhaps the two protagonists could have been okay if they were simply individuals without dependents, but with dependents their lives need to work in order to care for the people in their lives. 

Mitchell’s play with language is also richly rendered. An earthy novel in many ways because of the protagonist’s connection to the soil and art of gardening, Mitchell provides beautiful descriptions of nature and the process of nurturing vegetation. Her use of patois—as reflected in the title—however is much more effectively done as it brings the characters to life, tying them continually to their Caribbean roots regardless of their physical settings. This patois richly stands against notions of complete assimilation expected, in some quarters, by immigrants, taking on political connotations. But mostly it feels like an honest look into the character’s lives. In association with others outside their background, they, of course, speak in the expected language but with each other—with comfort and with history—they speak their home tongue.

Undoubtedly, the bulk of this novel stands as an exploration of trauma. What does a traumatic experience look like twenty years later if it goes unaddressed? What perversive and far-reaching consequences can it have on various aspects of one’s life as well as on their own person, if not dealt with? These questions are easily discernable within the trajectory of the story. Amaya is a woman with secrets in her past that she has chosen to keep even from herself, but she can’t avoid them if she is to move into the future differently from previously experienced. The character makes much of the feeling that “change is on the way;” it is just around the corner. And, indeed, it is forcing her to reckon with a painful and traumatic past. With both style and panache, Mitchell slowly unfolds the secrets of Amaya’s past intimating us, as readers, into her experiences. The shifts in geographical locations in the pursuit of this unveiling create interesting contrasts which enrich the novel as a whole.

At the onset of the book, Mitchell begins with an epitaph: “when the caterpillar completes its cocoon, it dissolves into a soupy mess and emerges a new creation, memories of its past existence a faint imprint on its DNA.” In these lines are a mirror of Amaya’s experience, but also a hint of renewal and hope. As with the novel’s title which speaks of dark beginnings giving way to light, the epitaph speaks of the human propensity for rebirth. What Start Bad A Morning, is, in fact, a novel about rebirth and fresh starts. From a dark past haunting its protagonist to brilliant light on the horizon, the book paints a picture of possibility. To paraphrase the common saying: after the darkness, what else but the dawn.   

Zainab Omaki is a Nigerian writer currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She has a masters in the same field from the University of East Anglia where she was the recipient of the Miles Morland African Writer’s scholarship. She was artist-in-residence at the University of Bayrueth’s inaugural creative writing residency and is an alum of the Tin House workshop. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Transition Magazine, The Rumpus, Isele, and others. She is an assistant genre editor at Prairie Schooner.